Monday, April 24, 2017
The Adoption Challenge to Genealogical Research - Part Two: Early History of Adoption
It is almost impossible for someone who was raised in the United States today to understand current adoption procedures without a significant dose of history. The worst possible perspective is to project today's arcane adoption practices very far into the past. The first "modern" law concerning adoption was enacted in 1851 in Massachusetts. The 1851 statute was the first to consider the welfare of the child as part of the adoption process. Up until that time, adoption was unregulated and treated the adopted child as chattel. Before going any further, it is important as a genealogist dealing with potential and actual adoption issues, to have at least a beginning understanding of the history. A fairly good summary of the history of adoption is contained in a Wikipedia article entitled "Adoption." I strongly suggest reading the entire article.
From a genealogical standpoint, this date of 1851 marks the point at which a researcher could expect to find consistent court records reflecting adoption. My own experience in this working through adoption issues relating to genealogy is that they are focused on the first one or two generations of a person's pedigree. In cases where the birth record of the adopted child was altered to show the adoptive parents as the birth parents, there is seldom a way to detect the existence of an adoption unless family records somehow indicate the possibility. For example, in 1917 a Minnesota law, for the first time, required that all placements be investigated and began the process of limiting access to the court's adoption records. Our present focus on adoption assumes the present legal and social environment and all of the concerns and conditions imposed by these laws. There are also significant efforts in the United States to radically change adoption laws and make the process more transparent.
Prior to the enactment of the adoption laws, most orphans were cared for in orphanages or orphan asylums. The orphanages originated in Europe were cared for by the churches, if at all. Before orphanages became common, orphans almost always became homeless, slaves or indentured servants. In England and to some extent in the United States, one response to orphans and other dependent people was the creation of Poor Houses. This movement was well developed in England during the 1800s and became the dominant method of dealing with the poor and orphans.
As I mentioned above, currently the genealogical issues raised by adoption are confined to individuals attempting to identify their birth parents and as I pointed out in the first installment of this subject, one avenue open to those individuals is to take a DNA test and post the results in one or more of the online programs.
If you are familiar with the history, you will realize that there are several results that become manifest in doing genealogical research beginning with the present.
1. During the time from the present back to the early 1900s, genealogical research into adoption must deal with the reality of sealed court records and "faked" birth records. There are methods that have evolved to both locate adoption records and obtain information on birth parents. See the FamilySearch.org Research Wiki article, "United States Adoption Research."
2. During the 1800s, records concerning adoption may be difficult to obtain. Research focus is on orphanages, indentured servants, and poor houses. An adopted child may appear in a census or other record as a "farm laborer" or "servant."
3. Prior to the 1800s, an orphan would likely show up as an individual servant or laborer but there would be no way to connect the individual to his or her parents. For example, one of my great-great-grandfathers was from Denmark and family tradition implies that he was "adopted." He may have been the son of one of the daughters in the family, but if this was not the case and he was "adopted" from a relative or third party, but in either case, no records exist showing his actual parentage. In this particular case, a DNA test would not help since my only connection to this "adopted" grandparent is through maternal lines. Even with a DNA test associated with extensive online family trees, the relationship is such that isolating those relatives who may have a DNA test that would apply is very complex and as yet, few of the matches reported are for people who have family trees in the program.
To be continued.
Posts in this series: